One of my best friends and mentor was the late, great, Marshall Jamison and he, above anyone else, taught me many of my most important life lessons — the first of which was the definition of a “bastard.”
Marshall was a big-time New York television and theatre producer when he decided to take an easier life in Nebraska by bringing his New York talent and applying it to the Nebraska ETV Network as a Senior Producer. His biggest success as a producer/director for NETV — in addition to creating original dramas for the network and executive producing the five-part Mark Twain series for PBS’ American Playhouse — was the 50 episode PBS series, “Anyone For Tennyson?”
Marshall and I were working on a live television production. I was incredibly young and he had taken me on as his own personal creative project. Marshall was producing and directing a national concert for television when the lighting director arrived fresh from New York. The lighting director had the usual New York crudeness and the moment he stepped on set, he began barking out orders and belittling and badgering the local crew in the meanest possible terms by calling them “untalented hicks” who had “no appreciation for art” because they were “too stupid to get it.”
At that time, in the middle 1980’s, Nebraska was still unexplored territory to many outsiders and when native Nebraskans were exposed to people from the outside world beyond the prairie states there was often a cultural clash between urgency, values and methods of working — but one thing that was never acceptable then or now was to lose your temper over nothing and the New York lighting director was being especially harsh in his screaming rendition of why the current lighting setup that everyone had been working on for the last day and a half was “total crap!”
Marshall, a tall, burly, man with a big shoulders and a booming voice, called the lighting director over to a dark corner of the theatre and said, “You don’t talk to my guys that way. This isn’t New York where everything goes. You be nice.” The lighting director nodded, apologized and said he “understood.”
Marshall nodded back and motioned with his giant arm for the lighting director to return to work. As the lighting director backed away and returned to the set, he immediately changed his tone and began to chum up with the crew. Marshall turned to me and whispered as he cocked his head in the direction of lighting director, “That guy’s the definition of a bastard.”
I looked up at Marshall as he nodded at me , waiting for a response. I asked, “Why’s that guy the definition?” “Look at him.” Marshall crossed his arms and glared at the lighting director who was now laughing and hugging various crew members. “He’s all nice now.” “Yeah,” I responded, “But isn’t that what you told him to do?” “Yeah,” Marshall sighed, “And that’s why he’s a bastard.” I nodded in agreement with Marshall, and then shook my head, “Okay, I’m not getting it. He did what you asked and he’s a bastard?”
“Right,” Marshall wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “He came in here full of piss and look at him now. He’s being nice. He can be nice. But he came in here and was mean. I’d let it go if he had no idea what I was talking about when I told him to knock it off or if he was still yelling. But he isn’t, see? He’s nice, and that’s the definition of a bastard: Choosing to be mean when you have it in you to be nice.”
Marshall and I stood there in silence for the next half-hour and watched the lighting director work his magic and win over the crew with compliments on their hard work.
It was then I began to understand how the choices you make in every moment of your life define you in the eyes of others — and how being genuinely nice first must always be your primary instinct or you risk having your talent outweighed by your mean.